Hollywood and women’s empowerment around the globe: A conversation with actress Geena Davis

Academy Award-winning actress Geena Davis seen here with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at a forum on "Investing in Women and Entrepreneurship: Solutions to Addressing MDG 3." Photo by: Devra Berkowitz / UN

After decades in show business, Geena Davis is looking at Hollywood from a different angle, questioning the way women and girls are portrayed in American films and television geared at children. The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, launched in 2007, has concluded that there has been little change in the prevalence of women and girls in film and television – as well as the way they are portrayed — since 1946.

Its latest study in 2010 revealed that only 29 percent of the 5,554 speaking characters in the 122 top-grossing family films in the United States between 2006 and ’09 were female. The female characters were five times more likely than the male ones to be shown in sexually revealing clothing, and three times more likely to be shown with a thin figure.

Though the research is conducted and based in the United States, its impact can be felt worldwide, affecting girls exposed to U.S. media and susceptible to its perceptions of how they should act and look, says Davis, an Oscar-winning actress and former model who has starred in films such as “Tootsie” and “Thelma & Louise.”

Davis spoke with Devex on the fringes of a March 8 forum entitled “Investing in Women and Entrepreneurship: Solutions to Addressing MDG 3”, where she was a panelist. The event was hosted by the United Nations Office for Partnerships and the Chamber of Commerce’s Business Civic Leadership Center in New York.

Your institute has been around for several years now, but it focuses on media in the United States only. Is the next step to expand your efforts internationally?

That is our next goal, to expand it globally. First, we have been focusing on U.S. movies and television because 80 percent of the media consumed worldwide is created in the U.S., so we are the ones exporting an image of women and girls’ value all around the world. So there has been tremendous focus on what is created here, but when we say media, it also means the cultural message – the value of girls and women that is projected in the society, in a variety of ways – and I feel that is key to increasing women’s empowerment, to also change the message about what the value of girls is. So, we are looking for ways to build upon that in other countries.

As you look to take the institute worldwide, will you try to facilitate more partnerships with civil society focusing their efforts on girls and women?

Definitely. That will be very key to accomplishing what we want to. We have to be culturally sensitive and work with the people who live there and work there – work with what is there already to accomplish this. So it is going to be a very improvisational work in the beginning to figure out how to best accomplish this, to go about it.

You have been attending development conferences and gender-focused U.N. events and panels. Are there any areas of focus that you think are not getting as much attention as they should?

I think a lot of people have the right ideas and I definitely heard today a lot of confirmation that people are thinking about the right areas, like educating girls. Just one more year of school can make such an enormous impact in a girl’s life. There has been a focus on that, and getting girls and women into business, so I think there is emphasis on the right things, currently.

Since your institute started producing and disseminating its research, have you seen any changes in the films coming out of Hollywood, in terms of gender portrayals?

We have only been around for a few years and our research covers a 20-year period, from 1990 to 2009. And the percent of increase of female characters was less than 1 percent. So, there is no improvement. The percentage of female characters in films has been the same since 1946.

What we feel confident about is in five years we will update our research and we will see the next move, because the anecdotal evidence, the things we are taking with content creators, studios, networks, the Writers Guild [of America], the Directors Guild [of America], the Producers Guild [of America], animators – all of those meetings where we share the data, we have gotten tremendous feedback about people taking it to heart and people being very shocked to learn the statistics that we share. I think the message is starting to percolate in Hollywood and we will see some change.

Do you let your children watch TV and movies regularly?

We limit it a great deal. They usually watch one movie a week. I don’t make it a habit to try to pick the most politically correct movies, because you couldn’t do it. Only 7 percent of films are gender-balanced. What we encourage people to do is to watch with the kids and use mitigating language, which can take away the impact of the negative characterization of female characters. We feel certainly that educating boys and girls about what are they seeing [is important], and asking, “Why are there so few female characters? Don’t you think a girl could play that part? Which character would you rather be?” I think those conversations will help people take away that negative impact.

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About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.